Christopher Hill

Tumults and Commotions:
Turning the World Upside Down

(March 1997)

From International Socialism 2:74, March 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

D. Underdown
A Freeborn People: Politics and the Nation in 17th Century England
Oxford University Press 1996

David Underdown’s Ford Lectures of 1992 make a challenging book. Historians have come to accept that what used to be called ‘the Puritan Revolution’ in England was not, in fact, about theology but was the first of the great political revolutions which ushered in the modern world. It set the example for the American, French and Russian revolutions which followed. Historians have not yet properly distinguished the social and political causes of the English Revolution, or recognised the precise distinctions to be drawn between ‘the politics of the elite’ and ‘the politics of the people’.

In the English Revolution the gentry were concerned primarily with government, bureaucracy and state-building; a less propertied section of ‘the political nation’ was trying to preserve its version of the ‘Ancient Constitution’, and to defend both local and national rights against the encroaching central state and the excesses of acquisitive individualism. ‘Popular politics was conservative but by no means universally deferential’. [1]

Underdown asks why, after the dramatic scenes preceding the dissolution of parliament in 1629, Charles I’s personal rule should have roused so little open opposition in the early 1630s, despite talk of a ‘sinister popish plot against England’s liberty and independence’. [2] The gentry still accepted the monarch, and some of them felt that MPs ‘itching after popularity’ had gone too far in 1628–1629, giving rise to popular discontent outside parliament. Experience of the civil war led Sir Robert Filmer to write Patriarcha by 1632, to defend the ‘Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People’. [3] Patriarcha circulated in manuscript form, though it was not published until 1680.

The gentry had traditionally taken the lead in protests against oppressive or illegal taxes, but – as an MP had observed – such taxes always ‘bred tumults and commotions’. By 1639 people were refusing to pay Ship Money, boycotting auctions of distrained cattle and rescuing constables who had been arrested for refusing to co-operate. ‘Even the bravest constable’, a high sheriff ruefully admitted, ‘dare do nothing but what the parish allow of’. [4] Experience of civil war convinced the gentry that putting arms into the hands of the common people was too dangerous. ‘Liberty and property’, ‘church and king’ became the slogans of propertied Englishmen for the next century. [5]

Certain aspects of what was a common culture seem to have been stressed more strongly at the popular than at the elite level – notably those connected with issues of gender of inversion. Underdown reminds us of the literary controversy started by Joseph Swetman’s Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Forward and Unconstant Women in 1615, attacking the masculine style which women were adopting, and the effeminacy in both dress and behaviour of some courtiers, including, perhaps, James I himself. [6]

Underdown examines The Man in the Moon, a scandalmongering royalist weekly edited by John Crouch from April 1649 to June 1650. [7] Frivolous and pornographic, and selling for 1d, the periodical had a large potential readership. It upheld a very traditional moral order. Its instances of sexual transgression nearly always involved hypocritical Puritans and, significantly, women who rebelled against masculine authority. ‘The words “freedom and liberty”, so prominent in rebel rhetoric, became in Crouch’s paper merely passwords for entering brothels patronised by leading Parliament men’. [8]

The murder of the king, Crouch insisted, was inevitably accompanied by ‘a chaos of sects and schisms, heresies and blasphemies, openly tolerated and taught, nay protected by these regicides’. [9] ‘Central to Crouch’s condemnation of the regicides’, Underdown comments, ‘is his contention that they are violating liberties protected by the Ancient Constitution, in ways that the King at his worst had never done’. Parliament’s excise on food and drink was ‘far more oppressive than Charles I’s Ship Money had been’. [10]

’The inversion of government was accompanied by sexual inversion’ – and by inversion of the natural order in family, social relations and the church. Quakers exemplified this by giving unprecedented freedom to women. ‘Mob violence against women was often provoked by their rejection of distinctions of gender and rank’. [11] Witchcraft accusations were levelled at both male and female Quakers. ‘Witchcraft beliefs, with their underlying identification of disorder with unruly women, were held as strongly by educated people as by their inferiors’. [12] Masculine women were routinely linked with witchcraft. Crouch in 1654 promised to write:

Of hags and cats, of imps and witches,
Of man-kind women that wear britches. [13]

Underdown concludes that ‘gentry and plebians shared many elements of a common political language … based on a widespread acceptance of theories of partriarchal authority in the family, hierarchical authority in the community, and legitimate monarchical authority in the state’ – all bound by law and custom. But he also notes:

… the division between the elite and the populace ... is surely the most striking change in the political nation during the 17th century. The country had been relatively united before 1640, in opposition to both religious and constitutional innovation. [14]

His final words are:

We have heard a lot recently about clientage and deference in the 17th and 18th centuries. Important as those notions undoubtedly were, it does us no harm, I think, to remind ourselves that both branches of the political nation were inspired by other ideas as well; by ideas stemming from the myth of the Ancient Constitution ... Embedded in the vocabulary of law and liberty that survived in the gentry’s political culture was the concept, which when they were honest about it, extended even to the poorest vagrant, of the freeborn people of England. [15]

Without any fuss, Underdown has given historians a lot to think about. My only query, as devil’s advocate, would be to ask – how often were the gentry honest about it? Not ‘some benevolent gentlemen’ but ‘the gentry’?


1. D. Underdown, A Freeborn People: Politics and the Nation in 17th Century England (Oxford University Press 1996), pp. vi–viii.

2. Ibid., p. 42.

3. Ibid., p. 44.

4. Ibid., p. 53.

5. Ibid., p. 89.

6. Ibid., pp. 64–67.

7. Ibid., pp. 95–98.

8. Ibid., p. 103.

9. Ibid., p. 105.

10. Ibid., p. 108.

11. Ibid., pp. 104–105.

12. Ibid., p. 129.

13. Ibid., p. 107.

14. Ibid., p. 128.

15. Ibid., pp. 131–132.

Last updated on 9.4.2012